Minsk: what is behind recent releases from KGB prison

Writers at Risk / Kannanotto / Vetoomus / Suomen PEN / 2011

Minsk: what is behind recent releases from KGB prison

Oksana Chelysheva

Also in Russian: Novaya Gazeta

In the last few days, official Minsk is franticly shuffling the deck of the collected cases – both administrative and criminal – they instituted with regard to the events of December 19. Some defendants are temporarily released on orders not to leave the city, while the total number of defendants in the criminal case on ”organizing and participating in the riots” is increasing.

Today, January 28th, Natalie Radina, a journalist with Charter 97, has suddenly come out of the KGB detention center. Vladimir Kobets, the leader of Andrei Sannikov’s election committee, was released in the middle of the night of January 27th.

On January 28th, investigative actions against Vladimir Neklyaev were resumed. He was questioned for the first time since December 29. It would seem weird to rejoice at it, but for Neklyaev’s friends and his family it is a motive to feel joy: his lawyer got the chance to meet her client the first time since December 29. Tamara Sidorenko, Neklyaev’s lawyer, told the “Belarusian Partisan” that Neklyaev ’ is alive, looks well, feels well”.

But is it sufficient reason for us to consider recent events as evidence of hope that Lukashenko is reviewing his tactics of demonstrative repression?

It seems no accident that defendants are selectively released on the eve of the meeting of the EU Council of Ministers. On January 31 they are to make the final decision on sanctions against the Lukashenko’s government.

All that may be nothing else but a PR move. Minsk needs it in order to lure the EU into softening their rebuttal on Lukashenko. And it may prove efficient, if joy at the provisional release of a number of the accused would serve to shut the eyes of both Strasbourg and Brussels.

The total number of defendants at the moment has reached 37 people.

Belarusian human rights activists say that we are witnessing the beginning of the second wave of repression. Thus, on January 12, 26-year-old Dmitry Bulavin got a phone call demanding that he come to have a conversation at the police department of the Frunze district of Minsk. Dmitry was among the detainees on December 19. He had his head smashed when OMON grabbed him.

The injuries he sustained were so severe that an ambulance was called to the detention center.  Dmitry had his wound stitched. He then served a ten-day administrative arrest. When Dmitry got the phone call, he asked what the grounds for such a conversation were. He was told that the conversation with him was intended to question his as a ”witness, and some other status.” He declined this prospect. The same day two officers in plain clothes came to his flat, and detained Dmitry telling: ”If you’re that smart, we’ll take you away.” In his mother’s words, as of now, Dmitry has been already charged under Article 293 of the Criminal Code which anticipates ”organizing and participating in riots.” The same day, January 12, Artem Gribko was re-arrested. He has been also charged with a criminal offense. On January 27 after a similar ”conversation” Sergey Kazakov, an activist of ”European Belarus”, was re-arrested.  The total number of detainees is now 51.

According to estimates of the situation by Belarusian human rights defenders, arbitrary arrests and the number of defendants will grow. At the moment, not all of the over 600 protesters detained on December 19 have come through administrative courts. Those who have served administrative arrests, are now threatened with being fired from their jobs, expelled from universities, and with unlawful interrogations.

According to the ”Solidarity” Committee of Aid to Political Prisoners, in the period from December 19, 2010 to January 25, 2011 11 people have been fired from their jobs.  20 students have been expelled from universities and more than 60 more are threatened with expulsion. To perform the order, university administrators are applying a variety of methods. Students who have served administrative arrests are not allowed to take examinations under the pretext of playing truant. Their performance in exams is downgraded.

The deans order expulsion to students but refuse to hand over the official issued rulings. Students are also forced to write statements saying that hey have quit education on their own will. One of the students told me about a weird ”gentlemen’s” agreement that the girls be allowed to finish this academic year but then to leave “willingly”.

Students’ teachers are also sanctioned.  One of the most odious formulations to justify the dismissal I have met is ”immoral behavior incompatible with teaching” which a teacher of acting in one of the Minsk gymnasiums found in his job logbook. The school administration had not found another justification for dismissal since this Belarusian citizen had thoroughly prepared his participation in the demonstration, arranging time off well in advance.

Mostly layoffs are a common practice in the regions. It is due to the fact that district administrations had compiled lists of “unreliable” residents long before the elections. It is a lot easier to identify dissenters in small towns and villages, as the level of external attention to them is significantly lower than in Minsk whereas people are visible. Natalia Ilinich, a history teacher of Talkovskoy School not far from Minsk, was dismissed on January 28. The previous experience has shown that such dismissals mean not just being ”banned from their profession, but a kind of ban on any work”.

Authorities are applying other ways of persecution. Vesna human rights organization reports that Elena Davidovich, a resident of Mosty district of Belarus, has been threatened by the local administration that they will deprive her of her parental rights. Elena, an activist Christian Democrats, has two children – five-year-old daughter and a year-old son. Elena is sure that her activities as an election monitor are a reason for these threats. Besides, she co-signed a complaint that the district administration facilitated ”For Belarus!” car rally organized by some Russians to campaign for Lukashenko.

That is why various activists of political and social organizations, human rights activists and journalists believe that it is now crucial to take the civil solidarity campaign to a higher level.

Today Sergei Semeniuk, the secretary of Belarusian Popular Front said to me that on January 29 over two thousand signatures of citizens who have decided to act as guarantors for the defendants will be handed over to the Prosecutor General of Belarus. They are demanding that they all be released before trial. The campaign was launched a week ago. It is not over. 35 other cities in Belarus have already announced that they have started to collect signatures of guarantors.

Jarkko Tontti